Winning Poems for August 2013

Judged by Robert Sward

First Place

The Grail Is Both A Cauldron And A Spear

by John Wilks
The Write Idea

Mum makes us tea: two cups on two saucers
from four separate services jingle
in her palsied grip like sleigh bells. Can’t beat
proper china for a decent brew. Mugs
aren’t ladylike.
Out come garibaldis
and fig rolls, soft from the rusting Peek Freans
tin of long gone Cream Assorted. Thanks ma,
but I’m on a diet. Don’t be daft girl,
you don’t eat enough to feed a sparrow.

Our drinks are dilute milk, scalding with mere
hints of tea-bag. Auntie Ellen would be
mortified: without the leaves, the patterned
dregs to read, she could not shape our future
with her dread pronouncements. I take a pinch
of salt with each cube of sugar. How’s tricks?
mum asks. Mustn’t grumble, says I, blowing
steam like a rolling haar around the rim
of a porcelain shore. Same old, same old.

I take a noisy sip and am a child
again, yet feel no younger. Touch my tongue
against the back of my teeth and expect
to taste metal. Frown as my forehead tenses,
as if from pigtails pulled back tight. Most nights,
I dream this is still home. Dream of strange paths
that trip my questing feet. They say the Grail
is both a cauldron and a spear; chalice
of vajazzled gold and wooden vessel.

In all its forms, a woman is not pure
enough to touch, or even look upon,
the holy cup of blood.
Sod it. I dunk
a biscuit in my tea and let its sweet
sacrament melt in my mouth. The body
of Christ.
Bless me father, for I have not
confessed a single one of my sins. Nor
will I ever. Bless me mother, instead.
Ah! The cup that cheers. She smacks her lips. Bliss.

Without question, the #1 spot goes to author of "The Grail Is Both a Cauldron and a Spear."

There is an authenticity here, a ring of truth that holds the reader's attention from beginning to end. I like, too, the effective, the wonderful and compelling use of dialogue, the mother's voice clearly different from the daughter's so the drama, the tension between mother and daughter, such as it is, stands as a playlet. And certainly one gets to know something about each of the two women, the mother and her cups and saucers "from four separate services." And the daughter becoming a child again in the presence of her mother ("yet feel no younger.")

"How's tricks?" Mum asks. "Mustn't grumble," says I. "Same old, same old."

Relaxed as it is, utterly offhand, there's an underlying iambic pattern to the exchange and indeed to the poem as a whole.

Prosaic seeming, yes, it's true, yet poetry enough for the moment. Even an exchange as mundane as the above can have rhythm, drama, a crystal clear "now," the predictable, the "ordinary" becoming unexpectedly memorable. "Heightened speech," it's called, and, yes, here we have one definition of poetry.

So there's a transformation taking place here, a transformation culminating in the earned breaking out of charged speech, what one hears in the poet's ringing last four lines,

"....The body / of Christ. Bless me father, for I have not / Confessed a single one of my sins. Nor / Will I ever. Bless me mother, instead. / 'Ah! The cup that cheers.' She smacks her lips. 'Bliss.'"

--Robert Sward

Second Place


by Bernard Henrie
The Waters

I came to New York City a young, unpolished
South African diamond; handsome as David
Prince of Wales when first meeting Wallis;
debts of a sun god in shops along 5th Avenue.

Cheated a little on Wall Street — front running
for large banks against small banks, learned
enough French to pronounce parfums sprinkled
over dancing girls and somnambulant debutantes.

Sped in taxis yellow as South American bananas
and drank in Spanish Harlem; anonymous girls
with eyes black as storms kissed me, Tanqueray
and crushed ice on rouged lips.

Half-draped blond bodies, silver bodies beside
mauve tea lamps and RCA phonographs;
Brownstones along Lexington Avenue. Tarot
card readings and séance reconnections
with the lingering dead;

played poker like a maniac, bet the Yale-Harvard
game, sat ringside at Yankee Stadium
for the Sharkey vs. Tommy Loughran fight.

My mother visited and for five days I stopped

Became engaged to Glenda Tilton, but she dived
off the pier at Far Rockaway Beach, they found her
three days later wrapped in sour green sea weed,
show girl legs albino white and nibbled at the edge.

I smoked all night above the East River, vodka
the color of snow I imagine at Moscow’s Bolshoi.

A margin call on US steel cleaned me out. Falling
wheat prices in Kansas made certain I was poor.

A Santa Fe took Glenda’s coffin to her parents,
the train stole away like a guest leaving a party.
I was too hung-over to recall the rhyme scheme
of a villanelle.

I wore white shoes. It was that long ago.

Second place goes to the gifted author of the poem "1929," which I like for its poet-musician's voice, its details, images that are at once "real" and that ring historically true. I like, too, the sense of the speaker whose voice grabs you right from the beginning, "I came to New York City a young, unpolished / South African diamond..." I personally find it hard not to want to read on... "Cheated a little on Wall Street---front running / for large banks against small banks."

I feel I should know who Glenda Tilton is ("became engaged to Glenda Tilton, but she dived/off the pier at Far Rockaway Beach..."). Is she the lover of a famous musician? I try Googling the name, Glenda Tilton, but that doesn't help in identifying her.

It's true: The more things change, the more they stay the same. There's that and the sense the author is writing "naturally," that is, in a particular dramatic voice, which the poet sustains throughout and does so without forcing the material, without artificially striving for effects.

Because the poem concerns a young man who came to New York in 1929, well, going by the title, one would imagine the poet is writing in the voice of a famous "personality," perhaps a jazz musician.

Just a hint of Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" in the speed, the conjuring up of New York City in a series of flashes ("Brownstones along Lexington Avenue. Tarot / card readings and seance reconnections / with the lingering dead..."

Love the energy of the poem, and only wish I knew more about the Glenda Tilton reference and how, dramatically, she figures into this poem beyond the facts and/or clues we are given.

--Robert Sward

Third Place

Flash in the Pan

by Walter Schwim
Mosaic Musings

In wartime, lights in the night usually signify something bad is about to happen – somewhere!

Breaking the stillness; a bump in the night!
Is that the start of an Eighty-one’s flight?
Payload of chaos to no one knows where
till H.E. and shrapnel light up the air.

Bursting in splendour, bright star in the sky,
Icarus riding a thousand foot high.
Just for a minute she dazzles the eyes
then swinging in circles, gradually dies.

Lazy green fire-flies, starting out slow
floating through darkness – all in a row.
Lazy green fire-flies rapidly change
to green killer-hornets streaking up-range.

Flickers of lightning! (A storm’s overdue?)
Katyusha’s big daughter, the one-twenty-two
shrieks overhead like a flaming banshee;
the zone near her grounding you’d rather not be.

Lurking in shadow, as patient as Jobe,
mine waits a victim to press on its probe,
renting the soul with a blast out of hell;
a few have survived their story to tell.

Of battle aurora commanding the night,
nothing’s as heinous as one out of sight.
Tiny hot flash of a rifle well aimed
could modestly signal “Your life has been claimed!”

“Eighty-one” – 81mm NATO calibre Medium mortar. The Russian version had an 82mm bore.
“Icarus” – Hand launched parachute flare, also known as “thousand foot flare”.
“Katyusha” – Russian nickname of the older 82mm artillery rocket also known as “Stalin’s Organ”.

It was superseded by the powerful 122mm projectile with a range of up to 30 km.
Other references are to; machine gun tracer fire, mines and booby-traps.

Third prize goes to author of "Flash in the Pan" with its effective use of rhyming couplets (and four-line stanzas) to describe a night-time artillery battle with mortar shells, hand-launched parachute flares (also known as "thousand-foot flare") and Katyusha, AKA "Stalin's Organ."

"Flash in the Pan" is an "action poem" that opens with a frightening exchange of fire, "a bump in the night? / Is that the start of an Eighty-one's flight? / Payload of chaos to no one knows where..."

A scene experienced from a distance before the camera, so to speak, zooms in close on a soldier, a single individual, at least as I read it, "Tiny hot flash of a rifle well-aimed / could modestly signal 'Your life has been claimed.'"

Hats of to a poet who can write about war (possibly in Afghanistan?) and doing so in rhyming iambic pentameter lines, i.e., ten-syllables to the line, two rhyming couplets to each stanza. There's a slight sing-songy quality that actually works for the poem, momentarily lulling the reader into a relative quiet, a dangerous quiet which, moments later, will be shattered by "shrieks overhead like a flaming banshee..."

Ambitious, a poem suggestive of a war veteran author, a poet with battle scars, and I like, too, the appropriate references to "Job" and "Icarus" which, in this context, feel right, that is, they seem to me "earned" and function as something more than decorative elements.

--Robert Sward